Dennison grew up in New Jersey, went to Wellesley, and then studied art history at Brown. Her mother, Ellyn, encouraged her interest in art. Her father, Saul Dennison, manufactured auto accessories (today, he’s the president of the board at the about-to-open New Museum; the couple built a wing on their house for their small collection of contemporary art). In 1985, during a previous art boom, Dennison, at 32, curated her first solo show at the Guggenheim, of emerging artists. She told the Times at the time that “there’s a strong reaction to a depersonalized world” in the show and that “artists are responding to the visual barrage that society feeds us.”
The Guggenheim was just beginning its transformation from being essentially the private collection of that family to being something much bigger and more expensive. Krens was hired as director in 1988 and quickly began empire building. His museum in Bilbao changed the art world, and his subsequent attempts to replicate its success from Brazil to Singapore effectively turned the original museum into a sales office for the global brand instead of an enthusiastically curated museum. It also set off the current craze for destination architecture and globalized art tourism—these great cathedrals of secular worship.
Dennison said the Guggenheim was as surprised as anyone at some of the repercussions of Bilbao. “I was part of it when there was not even a hole in the ground; I installed the first show,” she says. “Did we have any idea of the so-called Bilbao effect and the impact it would have on museums as an agent of urban revitalization, of ‘starchitects’ and all that? I don’t think so. Did it diminish the importance of New York? Well, it seemed to in some respect.”
Lack of curatorial focus was only part of the problem at the Guggenheim. Despite famously, egregiously branded shows like the 2000 Giorgio Armani spectacular, the money wasn’t coming in. A big part of Dennison’s duties at the Guggenheim included “seeing the best private collections in the world as you cultivate individuals,” she says. She also traveled the world meeting people in cities where the Guggenheim considered opening satellite museums. And all of these connections made her much more valuable to her new employer. “There were a lot of parallels with what I was doing,” she says. “The growing art world and emerging markets in Asia and Russia and the Middle East are exactly the places the Guggenheim was looking to expand.”
Ultimately, as with all things in the art world these days, this is about money: Dennison, 54, made $425,000 last year at the Guggenheim. She’ll make much more at Sotheby’s, so long as she, and the company, does well.
Judging by other museum people who’ve gone over to the other side of the business, she may not have an easy time of it. The right people like her (her friendship with the L.A. billionaire Eli Broad helped spark LACMA’s interest in her), and she works hard for them. But just because she has machers like Peter Brant and Stephen Ross on the Guggenheim board doesn’t mean they’ll automatically sell through Sotheby’s now. Connections open the door, but closing the deal most often involves which house offers you the higher guaranteed price; auction watchers note that Christie’s is ahead of Sotheby’s in contemporary art right now largely because it’s gambled and anted up more. Behind the scenes, this is done by attempting to match up the number with the budgets (and hunger) of likely bidders.
Meyer thinks Dennison is a natural. “Lisa had been involved very, very closely with acquisitions for the museum,” he says. “I used to talk to her about market and value. About how much things could cost. That’s how we established our dialogue. She’s very market-savvy.”
Dennison is at pains to describe how similar her previous job is to her current one. “I’ve been someone who’s always come to auctions,” she says, “which is not typical for museum directors. And I did because I thought it told us a lot about our time, the market, about what collectors were thinking about.”
But there are definite differences. Yes, she’d corral patrons to buy pieces the museum wanted and donate them, but she was doing it for an ostensibly higher purpose. As one longtime art-world friend of Dennison’s who’s played on both for-profit and nonprofit teams puts it, “In museum work, there’s a kind of dignity in your role. At Sotheby’s, if you ever try to retreat into your dignity, you fail.”